Canadian expat Geraint Isitt has lived in the Middle East for 14 years, most of them in Dubai, the modern metropolis in the United Arab Emirates.
We talk of the history of Dubai, and Lea remembers when she first visited in the 1980s, when it was a small desert town.
Safety, expenses, heat, geography, outdoor activities, and lodgings from the opulent seven-star Burj Al Arab, to more inexpensive lodgings -- we discuss them all.
Geraint talks of Dubai's giant malls with skiing and penguins; beaches, the Burg Khalifa, tallest building in the world; the souks of the old quarter; the desert, Palm Island, and what's new, including a restaurant hanging in the sky.
And he takes us on a day-trip to Abu Dhabi, focusing on the Grand Mosque, before telling us his favorite memory.
Geraint Isett is a writer and photographer who has lived in Dubai and currently lives in Abu Dhabi.
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at forbes.com, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter; Travelea on Insta; on Facebook, it's Places I Remember by Lea Lane. Website: placesirememberlealane.com. Please follow, rate and review this weekly travel podcast!
* Podcast edited for clarity.
Lea Lane 00:04
Hi I'm Lea Lane, an award winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truth, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world. My first trip to Dubai in the Arabian desert near the Persian Gulf was a stopover on a flight to India in 1984. Looking down from the plane, I saw a small town and a whole lot of sand. In 2014 when I returned, I was blown away. Dubai was a shimmering, soaring Metropolis rising from the sands like I said from a futuristic movie. The earliest written record of Dubai is in the 10th century A D, and around 15 at the state jeweler of Venice documented the pearl diving industry there. In the early 18th century, Dubai was a fishing village, and by 1822, a town of about 800 members of a sheiks tribe from nearby Abu Dhabi, with its business savvy ruling family, reducing taxes and welcoming foreign merchants. Dubai expanded further in the early 20th century, and soon became a re exporting hub for Persia and India. The UAE, the United Arab Emirates, was created in 1970. Following the independence from Great Britain, Dubai is now the capital city of the emirate of Dubai and one of the wealthiest of the Emirates it's now a city of around 3 million. And it's been compared to Singapore, Hong Kong, Las Vegas with soaring skyscrapers, ports, desert beaches, a place a big business and tourism because of its large expatriate population. Dubai feels like a Middle Eastern melting pot, and the atmosphere is generally tolerant. Our guest today is one of those expats Gerain Isitt. He's a published author, a prize winning amateur photographer, and an avid traveler. He's lived and worked in the Middle East for 14 years. Welcome, Garrett. How would you describe living as an expat in Dubai?
Geraint Isitt 02:07
First of all, Lea, thank you for having me on the podcast. I'm a fan. The first word that comes to mind is safe. I just feel incredibly safe here. For example, my mom came to visit few years back and we were walking back from a restaurant 1130 at night, so it's nice and dark. And therewere wo men out jogging with headphones on and my mom's like, you wouldn't see that back home. And I'm like, well, their company, they know they're there. They're protected here. So I do feel feel safe and blessed. I'm going to be honest, I feel blessed to have had the chance to have lived it and work here. Yeah, so that's good.
Lea Lane 02:49
Is it an expensive city to live in?
Geraint Isitt 02:51
My wife and I, we drive a Mazda, there are times where you stop at a traffic light and you're sandwiched between a Lamborghini and an Aston Martin. So. So it can be quite easy to get pangs of jealousy, but you can live within your means and thankfully, apart from me having a golf and photography addiction and my wife, photography and shoes, we do quite well.
Lea Lane 03:19
Well, what about the heat?
Geraint Isitt 03:21
Okay, well, yeah, we're in the middle of summer right now. I can do a quick Google to find out what it is in Fahrenheit. But we're we normally we we can hit mid 40s to 50 degrees Celsius in the summer. And then it can get quite humid because we're surrounded by water. So with the humidity, you can feel like 65 degrees sometimes.
Lea Lane 03:48
So what's what's 60 degrees Celsius? 131. That's hot. Maybe yes, it's hot. It's hot. It's not quite that hot physically, it'll get up to mid 40s Celsius. But with the humidity. Summer's not so fun. So you know, the good news is lots and lots of air conditioning.
Geraint Isitt 04:06
Oh yeah. You go from air conditioning. We have underground parking, which helps as well and then air conditioned office at work. Yeah.
Lea Lane 04:14
Dubai I know is on a barren Coastal Plain. It has rolling dunes and has a coastline and a sand desert, a world's largest sand desert. And it has a rugged mountain range which it shares with Oman, which frames the outskirts of the city. So what outdoor activities do you enjoy?
Geraint Isitt 04:32
In the summer, very few. But in the winter months Dubai, as you said, it does share towards the northern border. You'll get into the smaller emirates of Rasul came and Fujairah They're about an hour and a half away but you've got there's great diving there snorkeling Jampol JS mountain range, as you mentioned, it just opened up a Bear Grylls Adventure camp there. There's the world's longest Blind myself as a photographer, there are some manmade lakes out in the desert just on the outskirts of Dubai. So 2025 minutes from the Burj Khalifa. You've got a super series of manmade lakes that attract they've recorded over 400 species of birds that come through the region and and yes, so you can walk around the lakes, there's mangroves there's there's a wetland right inside downtown Dubai, like right next to the Burj Khalifa which again is quite popular and beautiful. So you can get a sense of the outdoors here as well. It's not just it's not just the skyscrapers.
Lea Lane 05:40
When you think about Dubai, you think about these skyscrapers and the over the top opulence. Let's talk a little bit about that, are a whole bunch of super deluxe hotels. The most famous is still the Burj ala Rob, I actually got to stay there. I was doing a story for an upscale magazine and they invited me to stay and it was quite an experience. They picked me up at the airport in a white Rolls Royce, I suppose I could have been helicopter Dover, because they have a hell of pad but he took me into Rolls Royce and they, they asked me what music I wanted. I could choose anything. I chose Middle Eastern music and they drove about half an hour to the hotel. And then I was greeted by my butler. And I had a standard room. But it was two storeys. It was bigger than my apartment in Miami. I mean it was standard, but I think was must have been over 2000 square feet. There were two floors, they were living room, there was a small kitchen there was a beautiful staircase that looked like I was in Chera Gone With the Wind it was so so gorgeous. And then there was this huge bedroom and huge bathroom and it was just incredible. And I remember I couldn't even let anyone in the door because the security was so so strong. My husband wanted to get in but I had to get a call on the phone and then I had to look on the TV to see if he was the right person. It was quite something but I do recommend you could go in there and just look around I think you have to pay a little fee I'm not sure if it's
Geraint Isitt 07:11
Once with work I won a contest we had at Christmas, and the winners got, we got to go to the Burj Al Arab for hot chocolate sprinkled with with gold dust. Of course, somehow they let us some have a look of the room where you may have stayed because it was their basic room.
Lea Lane 07:32
But to get to basic where the
Geraint Isitt 07:35
bottom level was the living room, of course expensive views of the Gulf.
Lea Lane 07:40
It's over the top and then there are many other over the top places like that. And that's what Dubai is known for. But there must be some less expensive places to stay I assume.
Geraint Isitt 07:49
Of course there are, I mean, you'll get your standard big name hotel chains, you've got Ritz Carlton, we've got the Conrad downtown, which is a Hilton Hotel, we've got also one and only Mirage, hotels, and entire which is an Asian chain, but they're they're known to be quite nice. And there'll be a base there used to be a couchsurfing movement here which which I guess predated Airbnb. Um, but no you can find like Ramada hotels and the Ibis and stuff.
Lea Lane 08:24
I think that's a good idea. You can always go in the lobbies of some of these hotels and look around and get the feel for it and you don't have to stay there.
Geraint Isitt 08:32
I mean, even around the Dubai Mall you'll have the address hotel which is quite lovely. Not to the seven star extent that you'll get of the Burj Al Arab but but when they say five star here they mean it and yeah.
Lea Lane 08:50
They're very proud of that. Speaking of the Dubai Mall, this is one of the largest shopping centers of the world has more than 1300 stores as an ice rink and movie theater. Is that where the skiing is the indoors.
Geraint Isitt 09:03
On the indoor ski hill is at a place called Mall of the Emirates so it's a smaller Mall. It was actually my favorite one in Dubai cuz you could walk around it quite comfortably. The Dubai Mall just got really, really large but yeah, the Mall of the Emirates has the indoor ski hill and they've got penguins there as well.
Lea Lane 09:24
I heard it has penguins. It has five ski runs and a snowboard zone and a chairlift. I mean you can just do about anything in Dubai. Unbelievable. If you want to go to the beach, the best one I hear is Jumeirah public beach near the Burj Al Arab
Geraint Isitt 09:43
high speed Island area. Kite Beach is quite nice as well, which isn't too far away because you get a lot of kite surfers and stuff out there. It's just a very active again, public beach. A lot of the hotels on the beachfront will have private beaches as well so so that you're staying there you can feel a little bit more pampered I guess which is which is I mean a lot of people come to Dubai to to feel pampered location.
Lea Lane 10:14
Of the cities that Burj Khalifa of course, that tallest building in the world, 2722 feet 160 stories and home to the highest outdoor observation deck. I've been there, you ride the elevator up to the 124th floor, but a lot of people don't know you can go higher to the 148th floor, you have to reserve that and it's worth it. I think if you're gonna go all the way there and especially around sunset so you can see the day turn into night. Have you done that?
Geraint Isitt 10:44
That's, whenever I have to take visitors I always booked at sunset just because I also find that Dubai is such a beautiful city at night, because of all the skyscrapers. Like once the sun goes down and the darkness comes and they all light up. It's just an app. It's absolutely beautiful.
Lea Lane 11:02
It is spectacular. Yeah, there's an old quarter. Bastakiya, is that pronounced correctly? Bastakiya quarter. I think it will be and that's where okay. Yeah. Okay. That's where the city started the historic district where the fishing village began. And it's called that name because it's traded with spa stocks, Iranian traders that settle there in the 19 century. It's a charming little neighborhood. It has a very popular outdoor cafe called the Arabian tea house. It has art galleries, the Dubai Museum, and something called wind towers. It's an early form of air conditioning. Can you explain what a wind tower how that was air conditioning in the old days?
Geraint Isitt 11:44
Oh, wow. You're stumping me here. wind towers.
Lea Lane 11:48
Yeah, they're nearly from America. I think that area is a very nice contrast because you could take a boat ride across Dubai Creek and go to the souks is a Gold Souk that has approximately 20% of the world's gold passing through the market. And it has about 300 retailers and you can kind of count on it because it's very heavily governed. The government controls it and you can count on what you get. And on the other side of the creek, you have the spice souk, where you have all the wonderful, pungent spices like cinnamon and ginger and chili and saffron. I take people when I a couple of times I've taken people there. It feels like the old Middle East that that is this futuristic city right next to it. Yeah, very nice.
Geraint Isitt 12:34
It's one of my favorite places to go during the winter days as well. It's just nice to walk, walk around there. And as you said, they're on the opposite side of the creek. You can take an Abra across the creek, the old wooden boats, and they're about it costs about 50 cents American to to get on the Abra cross the creek and you've got spice souk, and there's the perfume suits, as well. Sook is, is market and plus, it's a good, good place to try your haggling skills.
Lea Lane 13:01
Absolutely. And if you want to go out a little further to the edge of the city to the Conservation Reserve, is about 87 square miles of the desert, which which is normally a research unit, but you can do sandboarding archery, dune bashing, and in a luxury four wheeler I did that was kind of fun. And then at night, we sat on cushions and we had a dinner out in the sands and we had henna tattoos and dancing. And it was just beautiful. Have you have you done that?
Geraint Isitt 13:31
I've done that, I've done that. Again, it's one of the things that take out friends who visit the city and there are plenty of companies that offer packages and tours out there. You can also just go out to the concert Vation reserve and hear about the wonderful work they've done bringing back the Arabian oryx, from near extinction and stuff like that. Again, I've it's a wonderful place to go out and take full photographs as well. There's just something about watching a sunset or a sunrise, over the dunes that just you forget that there's a city of 3 million people 20 minutes away.
Lea Lane 14:11
It's incredible. That part I know when you when you do that you really marvel at it. There's some other thing that's marvelous, it's called the Palm Islands. These are manmade artificial islands they were created in 2001 It only took four years to build them and each of them used over 53 million pounds of sand and 12 million pounds of rock and they are created to look like a palm tree. If from above when you fly over your high building you see a palm tree and and there's another cluster called the world islands which is positioned to resemble a world map. So you know one of those things that see it but you just think how can this be it's just only a few years since it's been a tiny town and now you have artificial islands and gorgeous hotels out there.
Geraint Isitt 14:57
Yeah, that's where a lot of the opulence is and the Palm is just great again during the winter months, you'll see hundreds of families just walking around the pathways of the Palm, you've got, of course, the blockbuster hotel is the Atlantis. That's the one that most people will have seen a photo off right out on the end of the palm tree, but restaurants as well, it's just, it's just a great, great spot.
Lea Lane 15:25
I went and had a Turkish Hamam I remember, it was the most luxurious experience I've ever had in a spa. Again, I was doing this story for an upscale magazine, I was very lucky that you've done more upscale things in Dubai than than I am. I'm not gonna lie. Well, I'm very grateful to have done it. There. I remember that there's a new fountain, the palm fountain I don't know if you've seen that when it's the first multicolored fountain in the city. And it uses a 14,000 square feet of seawater to light up these staggering heights of water this 3000 lights it's in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Geraint Isitt 16:06
And obviously not one in person yet. I haven't seen the Dubai Fountain many times but I've not seen the palm one in person yet.
Lea Lane 16:13
The Dubai Fountain is famous by the Burj Khalifa. And it's set to music very much like the Bellagio in Las Vegas, everybody gets to see that. There's an increasing art and culture scene in Dubai. And one of the unique art installations is a new one. It's the theater of digital art. And a lot of cities are having these digital displays of Monet and Van Gogh and so forth. But this one is a permanent virtual reality. It has music and virtual display. So that's a good new thing. If you've been to Dubai before this is this is a new feature you want to get out of Dubai, I'm not sure why. But you can take some wonderful day trips out of Dubai and the most famous one is to Abu Dhabi, which is what about 40 minutes 45 minutes on the highway? Yeah, I've mentioned the fabulous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which I talked about it in Episode 25. And how I came back to see it but there's also a great camera market and there's a Falken hospital, there's the branch of the Louvre Museum. So if you want to take a day or two or three, you're very close to Abu Dhabi. If you get it you fly into Dubai, and you can go to both.
Geraint Isitt 17:22
I think just a visit to the Grand Mosque. It is just a truly remarkable building. It's just I mean a feat of architecture in this region in general, I mean, is an architect's dream, really, I mean, just to just the shapes and the sizes of the buildings and the curves and whatnot, it going back to the the Arts and Cultures. Dubai's opening of the museum of the future. It's set to open later this year. And from the outside the building just looks absolutely amazing. It's right on Sheikh Zayed Road, which is the main highway that bisects the city. It's five lanes each side. And yeah, it just looks amazing. Of course, Dubai has got Expo 2020 This year, it's still being called 2020 Just like Tokyo Olympics where they need money, and that kicks off right away. So that'll be more art and culture and just a vision of technology.
Lea Lane 18:20
I think it's very interesting because Dubai started off with these attractions, these superlatives and activities, but it is now coming into us a time of culture where both Abu Dhabi and Dubai are having some of the great museums of the world now. And it's a lovely thing to add that to the mix. Yeah, talking about food, there's great regional food but there were also great restaurants as star chefs all over the place I mean, incredible and many extraordinary settings. One of the most interesting is called Dinner in the Sky where you can design on a suspended table that's about 50 meters high in the air a crane kind of holds this thing and even Delta in this delicious food while you're looking over the entire area I did not do this Have you done this?
Geraint Isitt 19:09
We actually had planned to do it but then for some reason it fell through but yeah, you're basically in this, I'm gonna say glass cube. It's not glass, it's thicker than glass, but it's see through floor as well and you're suspended up and hits a preset meal of course you can't pick off a menu and have it flown up to you although I bet you that day is coming with drones but but but yes suspended up there and you've got a three course meal and I'm assuming 360 degree views but no I've not done it yet.
Lea Lane 19:41
Well, I can't imagine why you might not want
Geraint Isitt 19:46
I'm okay with heights, I'm not bad with heights, which is good because most people who come here say you go to take Burj Khalifa and and even on the 124th floor you're still a fairly good way up?
Lea Lane 20:02
Oh yes. When you you look down you realize how high it is. The name of the podcast is Places I Remember, so could you please share with us a special memory of yours about Dubai?
Geraint Isitt 20:16
The easiest and all this one was was getting married in Dubai. I mean, that's always gonna trump all of the random encounters with famous people that just happened. But, ya know, I was fortunate enough that I married that lovely Sarah in a little church in Dubai that despite it being the UAE being a Muslim country, they are very respectful of other faiths. And we got a little church wedding during lockdown time. So we were in masks, our two guests were in masks, two witnesses. The minister was in mask and we had it on Facebook Live. So our friends and family around the world could watch it. So that's always going to, be no matter what happens, that's going to be my takeaway.
Lea Lane 21:09
Romantic and there's nothing more lovely than that. That is the most superlative thing of all. Yeah, so I shared that.
Geraint Isitt 21:18
Thank you. I mean, I did live in the Dubai Marina. And so every Friday morning, I would go to the same grocery store. And every Friday morning, I would see the same retired English cricket star buying groceries and it'd be just like, morning, morning, before I got married. That may have been the big things like yeah, you need me by my first name, but yeah.
Lea Lane 21:46
Yeah, well, I've noticed a lot of the memories that people share are special memories like that, a small memory to some but a big memory to the person and those are the things you carry with you the rest of your life, of course. Thank you for sharing that one. I do hope that Dubai keeps coming up with superlative things to see and do we can all use a bit of magic in our lives as we traveled the world to thank you, Geraint, I said for helping us better understand what makes you buy such an extraordinary destination.
Geraint Isitt 22:17
Thank you once again, Lea, for for inviting me on and it's been my absolute pleasure.
Lea Lane 22:27
Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book, Places I Remember, is available on Amazon and at bookstores, in print and Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going